Columnist: Wrongly focused

The cable news networks in the last week have aired heavy amounts of “breaking news” – if that phrase even has any merit still on Fox, CNN and MSNBC – on the arrest of missing woman Laci Peterson’s husband.

“True, the Smart and Levy cases were odd and deserved some coverage, but definitely not the incessant, overblown publicity that they and others received.”

What had been a quieted story due to little developments in the case and the war in Iraq, had suddenly been brought back just in time for the cable news stations to break out of a “slow” news cycle with yet another real-life drama.

The body of Laci Peterson and her unborn son surfaced earlier this month on the ocean shore near Modesto, Calif., and local police charged her husband, Scott, with murder April 21.

The war in Iraq had come basically to an end, as far as intense fighting, continual developments, and, thus, any need for numerous embedded reporters. Without 24/7 war coverage to rely on, what was cable news to do?

Well, Fox, CNN and MSNBC all went back to what they know how to do best: take a sad and cruel local story, sensationalize it into an overblown national story, keep running meaningless updates on it and interviewing various analysts to keep the real-life soap opera/mystery going for viewers.

As it did with Elizabeth Smart, Samantha Runnion, Chandra Levy and other missing person stories, the cable networks take the story and try to make it their own Lifetime channel movie. They’re prime-time, real-life mysteries, that obviously are sad tales, but they are fed in by the media as entertainment.

People tune into the cable news stations to get the latest, “breaking” developments in a case, like Laci Peterson’s, because it’s like a little mystery for them to follow. They’ll tune into Larry King on CNN every night as he interviews another grieving family of a missing person, asking them the same obvious, tear-jerking questions and repeating the same thoughts, hopes, prayers, facts and analysis.

As comedian George Carlin wrote in his 1997 book, “Brain Droppings,” the media are the “Grief, Tragedy, and Sympathy Industry.” Carlin wrote this well before the sensationalized coverage of missing people of the past few years, but it’s even more relevant now.

“The news media are playing a game with you,” Carlin wrote. “You’re being fed a large ration of other people’s troubles designed to keep your mind off the things that should really be bothering you.”

Later adding, “They (the media) like to simply cover their designated Victims of the Week, so they can see themselves as somehow noble.”

These missing person cases do not affect people outside of their local areas. True, the Smart and Levy cases were odd and deserved some coverage, but definitely not the incessant, overblown publicity that they and others received.

On CNN’s Web site April 22, the Laci Peterson case was the main story, complete with a big photo of Scott Peterson in court. Other top stories included just some meaningless stuff about an Iraqi scientist who told Americans that Iraq destroyed weapons of mass destruction right before the war, an American arriving in Baghdad to see its reconstruction amidst locals’ calls for coalition troops to move out and, of course, that international SARS outbreak appearing in North America.

There are hundreds of people who go missing every year in America, so why are a few cases (which, oddly, mostly involve white women on the West Coast, with the exception of Levy) getting the national spotlight? What about 7-year-old Alexis Patterson, the missing African-American girl who only received very brief national attention after news networks were criticized for being racially biased? Why did she and countless other missing children and adults not receive the enormous publicity and help of network coverage?

The answer from the networks is that they obviously can’t cover every case, and the few instances they do go greatly in-depth with are rare ones that society should be aware of. Could your child be snatched by a stranger from her room in the middle of the night? Is there an kidnapping epidemic in America?

This type of constant coverage, like that of a few shark attacks in summer 2001, only makes people become more needlessly paranoid and overcautious. It also makes a joke of the networks that go overboard, especially at a time like this when America and world have much more pressing issues at stake.

National news networks, specifically the cable stations, all basically admitted after the Sept. 11 terrorists attacks that they had not done their job and had put their focus in the wrong direction – celebrity news, summer shark attacks and the Chandra Levy case.

There were some hints that they would try to not let their focus be lost again like that, but they have proven that they still just do it for the ratings and money. Yes, they’re businesses, but they have a duty to serve the best interests of their public and not devote much time and resources to personal dramas.